Senator Robert Marion La Follette

 1855-1925; Republican, Wisconsin

“Fighting Bob” La Follette was the Ted Cruz of his day. Like the notorious Tea Party Republican from Texas, La Follette championed “extreme” bills that had no chance of passing, tied up the Senate with “pointless” filibusters, and campaigned against his fellow Republicans. Congressional leaders loathed him. President Theodore Roosevelt snubbed him. The press mocked him.

Yet, there is a profound difference between Bob La Follette and Ted Cruz. Fighting Bob may have pioneered the political tactics that we now associate with Cruz and other Tea Party insurgents, but his ideology could not have been more different. He was one of the progressive visionaries who initiated the major political advances of 20th century, including campaign finance reform, child labor laws, workers’ compensation, environmental conservation, women’s suffrage, income taxes, and direct election of U.S. senators.

When La Follette arrived in Washington in 1906, he already notorious for taking on the powerful railroad industry and defeating the Republican party bosses and in his home state of Wisconsin. Senator Nelson Aldrich and House Speaker Joseph Cannon, who dominated Congress, were determined to shut down him down. President Roosevelt sympathized with many of his ideals but scorned his inflexibility, preferring to compromise with conservative Republican leaders in order to pass modest legislation.

La Follette believed that such compromises were counterproductive. “In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf,” he argued. “Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.” He had a different strategy. Believing that real progress was impossible as long as Aldrich and Cannon controlled Congress, he deliberately proposed bills that he knew they would quash. After his congressional colleagues rejected the legislation, he went on speaking tour and read out the names of everyone who had voted against this bills.

His tactics were effective. Voters retaliated against his conservative opponents, and a factional war threatened to rupture the Republican Party. When the bumbling William Taft succeeded Roosevelt in the White House, La Follette and his little band of Republican insurgents inspired a nationwide upheaval. By 1912, he was no longer the “lonely man in the Senate” but the leader of a formidable political movement that would forever change American history. He named it the Progressive Movement.

Speaking in Cumberland, Wisconsin, 1897

Speaking in Cumberland, Wisconsin, 1897

More La Follette photographs and cartoons.

La Follette on Film